Unfit: Literacy as a Tool of Resistance

“If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of [Douglass]) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”[1] This is what Mr. Auld told Mrs. Auld after she considered teaching young Frederick Douglass how to read. However, after Douglass heard this he knew he must learn to read so he began a grueling process to teach himself. A process which truly made him “unfit to be a slave”, he used the tool of literacy to propel himself to freedom and once free he used it to write and advocate for other people who were enslaved. Douglass is undoubtedly one of the greatest thinkers to ever live and die in the United States, in the Western hemisphere, or in the world during the 20th century. However, Douglass thinking was communicated and strengthened because he was literate. Douglass’ narrative provides a model demonstrating the importance and liberating nature of literacy and education, but his story also provides the call of responsibility and advocacy for those who are educated and literate to advocate for those who are not and are vulnerable because of it.

Literacy and education are important they provide access and opportunity. In the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision Chief Justice Earl Warren said in 1954, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunities of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available on equal terms.” However, the school to prison pipeline seeks to do just that which is to strip poor black and brown children of an education. The numbers are startling, “A 2007 study by the Advancement Project and the Power U Center for Social Change says that for every 100 students who were suspended, 15 were Black, 7.9 were American Indian, 6.8 were Latino and 4.8 were white.”[2] Suspensions and expulsions are interrupters in the educational process. If the wrong student is expelled who does not deserve expulsion it is always to the detriment of the student and puts them a few steps closer to the prison system. The public school system has a long history of unfair treatment of black and brown students but it is a relatively new phenomenon to incorporate the criminal justice system as a disciplinary measure for typical childhood behaviors. This problem provides community leaders and community organizations an opportunity to advocate for victims of unfair suspensions and expulsions. School administrators and school boards are known for reconsidering their decisions in the face of community pressure, especially in light of reasonable evidence of unfairness or overly harsh decisions.

Literacy and education are very important from a young age. Education Week cites a study, “A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer,” read the report.”[3] This number should alarm us and should demonstrate the importance of teaching young children how to read and simply not relying on the school system. If parents are ill-equipped to do this then community programs, institutions, and organizations must because dropout rates are associated with prison entry. A study by Northeastern University utilizing a wide range of census data discovered, “about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.” These numbers present a real opportunity for community leaders and organizations to interrupt the school the prison pipeline by providing literacy programs.

The benefits of literacy are important. It goes beyond just reading, it is important for navigating the financial industry, a technological world, and living in the age of information. These skills are crucial if the community wants to give children the most opportunity to avoid predatory systems and unfair systems, such as the criminal justice systems. Children are unfit for the school to prison pipeline.


[1] Andrews, William L.; Gates, Henry Louis (2000-01-15). Slave Narratives: Library of America #114 (p. 303). Library of America. Kindle Edition.

[2] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/education-under-arrest/school-to-prison-pipeline-fact-sheet/

[3] http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2011/04/the_disquieting_side_effect_of.html


About the Author
Lawrence W. Rodgers

Lawrence W. Rodgers